It's a political minefield in certain parts of our country to cite Europe as a positive example of anything. Fortunately, now is a moment when Europe is a useful counter-example in a conversation that aligns good politics and good policy.
As the past week has demonstrated in elections in France and Greece, austerity makes bad politics. The emergence of a socialist frontrunner in France is likely to upend the austerity fixation of the European Union and shake up the debate about how to lift countries of economic crisis.
Underlying these political turns is an economic reality: austerity has been bad policy. Long before Paul Krugman's observations in the New York Times on last week's election results, he was detailing "the austerity delusion" in those same pages, tracking and debunking the myths that slashing leads to security, that deficits are inherently dangerous and that austerity trumps investment.
Austerity isn't just unpopular among individual voters because it leads to practices that support each of them less; it is unpopular because it's an approach that supports an entire nation less.
In early 2011, after the Paul Ryan budget chased upstate New Yorkers to vote Democratic in a special election leading to an upset defeat for Republicans, the former type of unpopularity was clear: people don't like it when their own services are threatened. Now, though, after nearly a full term of Tea Party obstructionism focusing us on debt ceiling debacles and government shutdown threats instead of job creation, aid to state and local governments and strengthening the fraying safety net, Americans are coming to that deeper antipathy toward austerity: that it hurts us as a country.
President Obama's steps toward that understanding were clear in his 2011 State of the Union where he called for greater investment; his autumn 2011 pivot from deficit fear-mongering to investment in employment; and his more recent campaign kick-off. He knows you don't want to campaign on deficit-hawkishness -- because you can't govern in that mindset.
Now it's time for Romney to realize the same. One of the reasons he's not receiving support from proudly self-styled centrists like Mike Bloomberg is that they know you don't grow a country by shrinking it. When Tom Friedman continues to call for a Bloomberg candidacy, he does it by describing how much China is investing in rail, ports and other infrastructure. Starving our government only appeals to Tea Partiers; and not even to them, when they realize their Medicare, food stamps and other public services are also on the chopping block.
So Romney may need to break the GOP taboo and look to examples overseas - highlight China's own growth and our need to stay competitive. Or, for the politically palatable solution, he can use the old conservative canard that we don't want to be like Europe -- over the past few years, they got too austere and look what happened to them.
If Obama and Romney can move beyond deficit - and the deficit of ideas austerity demands - they can engage in a debate that will life our aspirations and our economy.